This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
There aren't too many movies I've watched twice in the same day. I can, however, think of at least one: La Dolce Vita. It's not the likeliest candidate for that honor - after all, there's the length (almost three hours) and the episodic narrative, creating the impression of several movies rather than just one. Not exactly an experience screaming for instant replay. And yet... Many years ago, during a summer vacation when I was home alone, I rented La Dolce Vita and gave it a spin. I was disappointed; the film left me cold, unfurling across the screen without letting me in. Its idea of decadent fun seemed tame and outdated, its characters smugly unsympathetic, its themes and ideas pretentious and overblown. I was bored, and missed the warm, magical aura of Fellini classics like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria.
That night, I felt a vague stirring. I kept thinking about the movie; something about it, something I couldn't quite put my finger on, was drawing me back. Around 10 or 11 at night I went downstairs, put the video cassette back into the player and started the film over again. This time, I was hooked. Somehow, without meaning to, I had discovered the way into the movie - at least for me. Often celebrated as a visual feast, albeit more philosophically shallow than it seemed at the time (and derided by its detractors for the same reason), La Dolce Vita is actually most successful - to my eyes - as a film of ideas, albeit ideas difficult to articulate (which is why some of the dialogue seems too pretentious and on-the-nose). The emptiness that drove me away from the film initially was now what reeled me in - or rather the sense of anxiety and alienation beneath the flashy but shallow facade. There was a "there" there after all, brought into existence by its own self-doubt.
Over the years, I've found myself better attuned to La Dolce Vita's oft-celebrated charms (Nico in a knight's visor high among them). I've enjoyed the lively playfulness of Anita Ekberg's sequences, the deft characterization of a guilty sell-out, and the sharpness of the social satire (this is, after all, the film which gave us the term paparazzi, and the camera-wielding vultures surrounding the unknowing widow remain as chilling as ever). But I've also remembered what I discovered that summer night: a movie anchored - just barely - by a recognition of innocence lost, of freshness with the bloom taken off, of spirituality evaporated in the cold dawn light. La Dolce Vita is rare among transitional films for being seen as a success, and an archetype, yet make no mistake - this is Fellini in the process of a great change, and the film is a discovery rather than a culmination.
Looked at one way, La Dolce Vita belongs to the second half of Fellini's career: it is flamboyant, unencumbered by the traces of neorealism, and set in the world of the rich and fabulous. Yet switching stances, we can also see La Dolce Vita as the last of the "early" Fellinis - still moored in a sense of social reality, no dreams and fantasies, and anchored by the last tendrils of a wounded, romantic self-awareness. The film's richness derives from both periods, waving goodbye to the iconic image of Giulietta Masina in Cabiria and La Strada, yet vaguely recalling that fleeting sense of energy, that bruised, romantic engagement with life which characterized the early works. I've always felt as if the young girl waving across the stream to Marcello at picture's end could be Cabiria or especially Gelsomina, sad and lonely perhaps but retaining a sense of purity which Marcello has lost.
I suppose these observations and descriptions reveal my true colors: I am more attached to the fifties Fellini than the sixties or seventies one. While swept away by the visual wealth of Juliet of the Spirits or Amarcord (and on those terms, nothing in the early films can compete - Fellini without color always seems to be lacking something), I react more emotionally and intuitively to Nights of Cabiria and I Vitelloni, with their vital warmth and sense of magic in the everyday. This is why I initially recoiled from La Dolce Vita (for what its worth, 8 1/2 left me completely cold on first viewing), but also why it grew on me. I could see, and was fascinated by, its connections to the works I responded to with more immediacy.
Just as the farewell over water evokes La Strada (at least Zampano could weep for his lost soul), so the first nighttime sequence in La Dolce Vita reminds us of Nights of Cabiria, but with our identification reversed. When Cabiria was picked up by a movie star, who then reunited with his lover and left her hanging out in the living room, we laughed at the pompous privilege of the rich and shared her sense of bemused disbelief. Yet the same scenario repeats itself this time, with divided sympathies. Clearly Marcello is our protagonist, and we understand his cynical, worldly perspective, but Fellini strays from time to time, lingering on the plump, aging hooker who simply shakes her head at these two slummers and hopes she gets paid for the use of her home. It's the last time in the movie we get even a glimpse of the "common" perspective (except for the exasperating presence of Marcello's girlfriend) - from now on, Fellini accepts, without quite embracing, a sophisticated worldview.
It's a movie made by someone who has gotten lost, who knows he can't go home again (the scenes with the father are especially poignant in this regard) yet is still close enough to the memory to feel homesick. This sensation is complicated by the fact that Marcello isn't homesick for one simple place, time, or sensibility, longing instead for several (some even contradictory), all seemingly burnt up in the dazzling streetlights of the Via Veneto. He is far from his provincial upbringing, long ago lost contact with Catholicism, feels unable to commit to his intellectual principles, and can neither reject nor commit to his clinging, loyal, yet tiresome lover. And what exists in place of all these once-grounding influences? Nothing, a chimera - and here the film's "tameness" (from a modern perspective) is to its benefit: Marcello's adventures are one long tease, either physically unconsummated (the hilarious delays and distractions which prevent him from hooking up with Anita Ekberg) or emotionally frustrated (Anouk Aimee sleeps with him, but refuses to "talk seriously").
Even the closing "orgy" is a lot of pomp with little to show for itself. Barely any flesh to speak of, just big talk and feathers floating in the air: chickens indeed. It's the sexual equivalent to the false "miracle" in the film's third big sequence - a big hoopla with no deliverance at its end, only death (in that case, a spectator killed in the rainy hullabaloo, in this case, a bizarre sea monster washed ashore). From La Dolce Vita, Fellini would go on to fashion ever bigger and more dazzling visions, dreamscapes larger-than-life and more truly Felliniesque than anything that had come before. Yet in a way, the dreamer had already disappeared, when Marcello shrugged his shoulders, straggling away from the rawness of the early morning shore, as the mysterious cherub turned to looks at us, still unconsciously embracing the true "sweet life" which Marcello will never rediscover.
La Dolce Vita appears at 2:15 in "Sixties Rising," a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies."